CARTER DICKSON – The Reader Is Warned. William Morrow & Co., US, hardcover, 1939. Wm.Heinemann, UK, hc, 1939. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback, including: Pocket #303, 1945; Berkley F972, 1964; International Polygonics, 1989.

CARTER DICKSON The Reader Is Warned

   A decade or so ago I offhandedly pronounced The Reader Is Warned the best John Dickson Carr novel in the Sir Henry Merrivale series (written under Carr’s pseudonym Carter Dickson). After rereading it I would say I prefer the plainer and comparatively more sober courtroom classic, The Judas Window, but I still rate The Reader is Warned quite highly.

   What people rightly love about The Reader is Warned is its exceptional impossibility and the sinister idea of “teleforce.” A mysterious psychic, Herman Pennik, pronounces that one of the people at a country house gathering will die at a certain time; and, sure enough, that person does die.

   No indication of how the man came to die can be found. Pennik helpfully declares he killed the man psychically, through the operation of teleforce.

CARTER DICKSON The Reader Is Warned

   The next day, the man’s widow challenges Pennik as a fraud and he, nettled by the challenge, tells her that she too will die by the means of his teleforce. And she does indeed die. But how she came to die is yet another mystery. Could it really have been due to teleforce?!

   One can think of thrillers with outlandish premises like this one that ultimately disappoint, but, amazingly, Carr comes up with a plausible (well, by Golden Age standards, anyway) and fairly-clued solution.

   The resolution, which involves a rather melodramatic and implausible trap and a quite incredibly garrulous murderer, is the main weakness of the tale, I think. But the “teleforce” idea that the tale is built around is a brilliant, bravura device and the last lines of the book are unusually thoughtful for Carr (if perhaps a bit optimistic — one thinks of the advent of atomic weaponry).

CARTER DICKSON The Reader Is Warned

   Despite my praise of this book a decade ago, in the intervening years I actually had forgotten the culprit and the method. (I find I often forget those details in Carr, but never in Christie.) On the rereading, I saw indications of who the murderer might be be, but I had trouble with the motive question, because I missed another point completely. But it is all is fairly clued, I maintain!

   As for the method, I was pleased to find it rather John Street-ish. In fact, is some ways the novel is similar to one by Major Street from the same year. Since the two men were working on Drop to His Death/Fatal Descent at this time, I suspect they may have discussed the particular murder method in Reader as well.

   Whatever input Street may or may not have on the murder method, the exuberant narrative is all John Dickson Carr. The Reader Is Warned is one of Carr’s most brilliantly constructed and engagingly told detective novels.

Editorial Comment:   Curt has recently been re-reading a number of books by John Dickson Carr. This is the sixth, and currently the last in a series of reviews he wrote as a result. He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, also as by Carter Dickson, was the fifth, and you can read it here.